On the morning after Montana Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was facing charges for assaulting a journalist, Danner Kline was in Birmingham sipping his coffee, mulling over the implications of Republicans coasting to another win despite the bizarre, violent circumstances.
“I mean, the optics, they’re just terrible,” Kline said. “What kind of message would that be sending if he does get elected?”
Kline, who announced he’s running for Alabama’s sixth congressional district next year, was still hoping for a Democratic victory on the morning of the Montana election, though he wasn’t planning on staying up late to watch the results trickle in. Deep down, he knew the die had been cast in that deeply red state.
Gianforte prevailed with 50.2 percent of the vote, despite the misdemeanor assault charge. Even before Gianforte “body-slammed” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about the GOP health care bill, 37 percent of Montana voters had cast their ballots through absentee voting. While three major newspapers in Montana rescinded their endorsements, the absentee head start proved to be insurmountable for Democrats.
As a Democratic candidate in a congressional district that didn’t even have a Democrat on the ballot from 2000 to 2010, the 38-year-old Kline has been keeping an eye on special elections across the country, trying to gauge the supposed winds of change that many seem to believe will be blowing to the left in 2018. Although he has never held public office, Kline has the aura of a seasoned political operative; he has peppered hair that is graying on the sides and bangs that swoop across his forehead.
In Kline’s home state of Georgia, Jon Ossoff narrowly missed securing a congressional victory for Democrats in a historically Republican district by two percent. He garnered 48 percent of the vote during the special called election to replace Tom Price, who was appointed to serve as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Now faced with a runoff of election on June 20, House Democrats are waiting anxiously to see if the wave of anti-Trump resistance can translate into enough votes to flip some congressional districts, especially after being narrowly edged out by Republicans in special elections held in Kansas and Montana.
“Regardless of what anyone thinks of Donald Trump, he has awoken something in a lot of people,” Kline said, his hands clasped tightly as he leaned forward on the table. “A lot of people feel threatened. And when people feel threatened, they organize. There is an energy right now, and people are wanting to fight to protect their safety and their health care from what’s going on in Washington. I’m inspired by that, and I also believe that energy and organization is part of what can help get me elected.”
In February, during a town hall meeting hosted by Congressman Gary Palmer, the current occupant of the seat Kline is vying for, hundreds turned out to protest. The Daily Show even sent a correspondent to cover the meeting, which took place amid a flood of raucous congressional town hall meetings in Republican districts across the country. A number of congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), opted out of holding such meetings with constituents.
The discourse remained civil at the Palmer town hall, but the incumbent was repeatedly challenged by constituents over his reluctance to stand up to the Trump positions on immigration and healthcare. Kline said he was encouraged by that.
The latter issue, Kline said, has been a key focus in the early stages of his campaign. “I’ve been especially alarmed by the passage of the AHCA (American Health Care Act) a few weeks ago and the budget that the White House put out that would cut Medicaid by almost 50 percent,” he said. “We’re talking about the most vulnerable people here, and if they don’t have health care, there will be tremendous suffering and people will die. That is what is at stake. And I think that in the richest country on Earth, there is no excuse to let people die because they can’t get health care.”
Even with the Affordable Care Act, “there were plenty of problems,” like premiums going up and deductibles being too expensive, he said. Kline sees the new health care bill as being hypocritical at best. “Republicans turned around and passed a bill that would make all the things they complained about with the ACA, it would make all that worse,” Kline said. “These things need to be fixed. But this bill won’t do that.” Compromise is paramount, and that will be a key to his campaign, he said.
Kline, who founded the grassroots organization Free the Hops, hopes that his work in bringing about legislative change to Alabama — one that has led to over $1 billion in sales revenue for the state — will resonate with voters who are looking for change. He still gets a good feeling whenever he sees someone sipping a craft beer or enjoying one at a brewery in Alabama.
Like many teenagers, Kline tried his first beer in high school when he was growing up in Marietta, Georgia — which, coincidentally, is the district now embroiled in a congressional runoff race between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. His friend’s sister bought them a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft, but took two of the beers for herself as a brokerage fee. The two teenagers split what was left. Those beers were the sum total of his drinking experience until after college. Kline’s father had become a Baptist preacher when he was in elementary school, a move that had a big impact on his life and “shaped [him] into the man he is today.”
His Baptist upbringing was a big reason why Kline chose to attend Samford University in 1996 where he pursued an English degree. After graduating, Kline “set aside the more Puritan sensibilities that led [him] to be an abstainer during college” and he began to dip his toes into the world of beer and wine. He started drinking Bud Light here and there but quickly grew tired of “the cheap stuff.”
His first exploratory foray into beers beyond Bud Light was Yuengling Black and Tan. Kline, a self-described “aspiring beer geek,” soon started trying as many different types of beers as he could, but quickly realized the laws in Alabama prohibited the type of variety that was available in other states. He saw an opportunity to make a difference, and in October 2004 he launched the Free the Hops website after seeing other groups in Georgia and North Carolina fighting against similar laws.
Without a deep pool of “beer-drinking college buddies” to recruit, Kline decided to tap into the homebrewing community in Alabama in order to get his message to the public. “I went to Alabrew and talked to the owner there, a guy named Kim Thomson. I asked him if he would email his customer list a link to my website,” Kline recalled.
He received two replies, from Lee Winnige and Chris Eidson, who would go on to become vice president and secretary of Free the Hops. “We got it going and we started organizing. It was 100 percent organic,” Kline said. Over the next few years, the group pushed legislation that would have increased the legal ABV (alcohol by volume) from 6 percent to 14.9 percent. That bill failed to make it out of committee in 2006 and did not receive enough votes in 2007 and 2008.
Kline and his colleagues were constantly fighting back against misconceptions about their organization and its goals in a state that has a reputation of being one of the more religious in the country. “There is a lobby group funded by Southern Baptists, and one of their top issues has always been against liberalization of any alcohol laws. At that time, they had tremendous influence in the legislature,” Kline said. “The party line on that was any increase in the amount of alcohol or the availability of alcohol will increase drunk-driving deaths and alcoholism.”
It was a misinformation campaign that had no connection to reality, Kline explained: “The thing is when you’re talking about making legislative changes, you’re not doing that in a vacuum. You can look at what’s going on in other states. Amazingly, these states that allow a higher alcohol content don’t have higher rates of DUIs or alcohol-related deaths. If anything, they’re lower.”
Kline made a similar point when he was trying to convince Alabama legislators that increased ABV is not directly related to impaired driving. He cited statistics: In 2003, a year before Georgia passed legislation that increased the legal ABV to 14 percent, there were 24,806 DUI arrests in the state, versus 15,115 DUIs in 2004. And in 2005, a full year after the ABV was increased, the state saw another decrease, with 13,680 DUI arrests.
With whiskey, wine, and malt liquors already available in nearly every county in Alabama, it was never about trying to get more alcohol in the hands of people who wish to abuse it, Kline said. “Drinking craft beer for that reason isn’t really getting a good bang for your buck,” Kline said. He calculated the ABV of various drinks as it relates to price — “Basically, I calculated the price of the ethanol in various beverages,” he said — and found that craft beer is far more expensive than other drinks if someone is just looking to get drunk. Wine, and just about any other alcoholic beverage, is a better bargain from a strictly ethanol standpoint.
After several years of legislative efforts guided by Free the Hops, HB 373 passed through the Alabama legislature and was signed into law by Governor Bob Riley on May 22, 2009. The bill raised the legal ABV to 13.9 percent, which subsequently allowed in a much wider variety of beer to be sold in Alabama and opened the door for more breweries to begin operating in the state.
By Kline’s estimate, the bill that passed — along with several other bills that the organization helped pass into law — has led to an increase of over $1 billion in revenue through various breweries and craft beer sales in the state.
“Fancy beer was the issue at the time. That approach I took to legalize fancy beer is an approach I can apply to anything,” Kline said. “It’s about being rigorous and understanding the issues and arguments people are making against you, then determining if they are valid arguments. And if they’re not, point out why they are not. Let’s use data to move forward and get things done.”
The father of two has since resigned from his position on the board of Free the Hops. “I knew I wanted to do something more,” Kline said. “But I didn’t know what that was. Then the election of Donald Trump happened. That was very, very concerning to me.”
Trump’s election made Kline start looking at local politics. He began researching Palmer and the recent election history of the district. He realized Democrats had made almost no attempt to compete in the district since the 1990s. “Of course Republicans are winning 75 percent to 25 percent, because Democrats aren’t even trying. The state party has put no resources into the district, and of course the national party doesn’t either. These candidates, God bless them, flounder with absolutely no support,” Kline said. “But I know how to organize. I know how to rally support and get things done.”
Kline said he believes society has put too much stock in political labels. “People want to know what label fits, and if they like the label, you’re part of the team. If they don’t like the label, you’re one of the enemies,” Kline said, noting that his goal will be to find common ground with the people in his district and fight for policies that help everyone, not focus on staying in “a neatly labeled box.”
He has managed to raise over $25,000 on his Crowdpac website from 269 donations. The sad reality, he said, is it takes millions of dollars to compete. While his campaign is still in the fledgling stages, his goal is to hire a campaign manager and begin fundraising in earnest within the next few months.
He seems to believe the Trump administration’s continual entanglement with scandal revolving around his campaign’s ties to Russia, and the subsequent investigation therein, provides an opportunity. For one thing, Kline believes the Republican Party is changing shape, especially as congressional leaders continue to back the administration.
“[Trump] campaigned on not cutting Medicaid and not giving huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. These are things that are not central to the Republican Party platform,” Kline said. “He campaigned and won on this — even though that’s not what he ended up doing. That tells me the things he campaigned on are winning messages. …
“What I believe is Trump has some core that will literally never abandon him. But there is no way that’s enough to win another election. I think there are plenty of reasonable people in this district who are lifelong Republicans who don’t like Trump. I’ve talked to them. If we continue to have these unbelievable headlines and Gary Palmer continues to support him no matter what, there is going to be a price. Believe that.”